Tim Chitwood

Tim Chitwood: Learning to talk about sex trafficking

It’s a “renewable resource,” says Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, and he’s not talking about clean energy.

He's talking about sex trafficking, here in Georgia and across the Southeast and throughout the country, and he's talking about it because no one wants to talk about it.

He talked about it briefly last week while speaking to the local bar association at the Columbus Iron Works, saying sex trafficking legislation Georgia passed in 2011 is working, but needs to be strengthened:

"My definition of sex trafficking is the purchase or sale of a minor child. Usually it starts in the area of 12 to 14," he said. People think the victims come from beyond U.S. borders, but not usually, he said: "These aren't illegal immigrants; these generally are our children. A lot of them are runaways. And while no one wants to really discuss the subject, for obvious reasons, it's a big problem throughout our country, to include our state. Many of these children are brought from one jurisdiction to another jurisdiction."

The attorney general's staff can chase a case across multiple jurisdictions, so it has a full-time prosecutor just for that, "and she's already busy working on numerous cases, one of which relates to your area, going up 85 headed toward Atlanta," Olens said.

In an interview after his speech, he said interstate highways are the silk roads of the sex trade, and racketeers are learning it beats dealing drugs:

"Eighty-five percent of the time it's girls, 15 percent boys, but these girls are renewable resources. So if you're a drug dealer, you sell the drug, and then you've got to find more drugs from the wholesaler to then deal. You can sell these girls 20 times a night, and the next night, the same thing. So we're seeing a shift where many of these folks in organized crime are getting away from drugs and going to sex trafficking, because in many ways they view it as safer and more profitable."

So in 2011 Georgia increased the penalties for those caught dealing in child sex slaves. The mandatory minimum sentence used to be a year, now the minimum's 10 years, and the range runs up to 25 to life, he said. "We've had one with two life sentences. We've had one with a 60-year sentence."

But catching the dealers won't shut down the trade if customer demand continues.

"You've got to stop the demand," Olens said. "You've got to make it known that the purchaser will get numerous years in jail just for the proposed transaction. We've had at least one individual given five years just for that. So that's one of the areas again we want to work on with improving the legislation next year, because the more we can scare the purchasers, the less the demand will be."

Meanwhile all law enforcement agencies need to know what to look for, to be the ground troops for the state and federal agents and prosecutors, so local officers are getting training, he said:

"So for instance we had an arrest in Greene County with a deputy sheriff, where he stopped a vehicle. He'd just recently gone through GBI training on sex trafficking. He looked at the driver, he looked at the lady in the back seat. It didn't smell right to him. He called for backup, and called for GBI backup.

"Ended up it was a 17-year-old girl from Birmingham. This was the fourth state she was being trafficked in, starting at the age of 12. It's way more common than we'd ever want to know about."

Olens says people can find out more about this renewable resource no one wants to discuss at www.notbuyingit.org, which promotes a public tip line, 888-373-7888.

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-571-8508.